In Praise of Vacant Lots and Community Development
by Jay Walljasper
It’s easy to talk about the importance of the commons in grand terms — vast stretches of breathtaking wilderness, publicly funded advances in science and technology, essential cultural and civic institutions, the air and water which we all depend on for survival. But let’s not forget the lowly commons all around that enrich our lives. Things like sidewalks, playgrounds, community gardens, murals, neighborhood hangouts, and vacant lots. Especially vacant lots.
Modern society’s obsession with efficiency, productivity, and purposefulness sometimes blinds us to the epic possibilities of empty spaces that aren’t serving any profitable economic function. The word “vacant” itself implies that these places are devoid of value. But think back to all the imaginative uses you could discover for vacant land as a kid. You probably realized someone else owned it, but it was still yours to run around, play ball, plant a garden, host tea parties, pitch a tent or just get away from the watchful eye of adults. Thankfully, commoners in many places are working to make sure that vacant lots will be there for future generations of kids.
Jonathan Rowe, who wrote with keen insight about the commons until his death in 2011, became a champion of shared public space in his home, Point Reyes Station, California, where several vacant lots sat on Main Street. “A friend and I decided to see if we could make a commons happen there just by seeding it a bit,” he writes in the book Our Common Wealth.
They fixed up some old garden benches and quietly deposited them in the lots along with other seats made out of tree stumps. “People started using the benches, talking and sipping and just resting their feet.” It quickly became the heart of town and West Marin Commons, a group he co-founded secured a long-term lease for the lot, which is now commonly called Jon Rowe Park.
A bigger scale example is the 596 Acres project, which identified every last parcel of publicly owned vacant land in Brooklyn with an eye to opening them up to the community for gardens and informal parks. The project is now expanding across the city, and the 596 Acres website offers detailed information on how to begin the process of turning vacant lots (including those now locked behind fences or privately owned) into community commons.
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The biggest problem in many communities — especially low-income ones — is caused by perception more than reality. A part of town gets the reputation for being “tough,” or “declining,” which is constantly reinforced in the media and local gossip. A negative incident happening there is widely reported as more evidence of “social breakdown,” whereas the same thing occurring in another place would be thought of as “an unfortunate event” and quickly forgotten.
Making things worse, many well-intentioned efforts to help these afflicted areas wind up stigmatizing the community even more. The whole focus is on everything that’s wrong: bad schools, bad crime, bad housing, bad gangs, bad economic opportunities. Even the people who live there come to feel negative about where they live and helpless to do anything to change things. It’s all just bad.
Yet even in the most economically and socially challenged communities, there are a lot of good things going on — shared dreams, community assets, and ways that people come together. These are the building blocks to make things better.
On paper, things looked bleak for the Grand Boulevard neighborhood in Chicago in the early ’90s. Eighty percent of children there lived in poverty, and a third of adults were unemployed. Yet below the surface, not visible in government statistics or a quick drive down its rundown streets, there was reason for hope.
This largely African-American community of 36,000 on the city’s South Side was home to no less than 320 citizens groups working to improve life in the neighborhood. Grand Boulevard’s residents were not just hapless victims waiting for someone from the outside to rescue them; they were taking matters into their own hands. These community groups — which ranged from church committees to senior citizen centers to mothers’ support groups — were mostly involved in the basic caretaking such as providing support for single mothers or taking in children whose parents were in prison.
Eventually many of these groups organized themselves into the Grand Boulevard Federation, which started addressing more complex issues such as creating jobs in the neighborhood and improving social services. They formed partnerships with government agencies, non-profit organizations and businesses, such as United Parcel Service, which reserved 50 part-time jobs for Grand Boulevard residents needing to get back on their feet. This made a difference in Grand Boulevard — both in concrete economic and social measures, but also the community’s own faith that they can solve their problems.
“For the last 40 or 50 years we have been looking at communities in terms of their needs,” says Jody Kretzmann, co-director of the Asset Based Community Development Institute at Northwestern University. “We have run into a brick wall with that approach.” Kretzmann and his colleague John McKnight of Northwestern pioneered a new approach to urban problems that starts with looking at the assets that exist in a community, rather than just looking at what’s wrong. This empowers people, Kretzmann says, drawing on the abilities and insight of local residents to solve a neighborhood’s own problems. This does not mean, he is careful to note, that troubled neighborhoods don’t need outside help. Kretzmann suggests all local revitalization projects begin with an assets inventory– which can be as simple as a list of what’s good about the neighborhood Solicit the opinions of everyone, including youngsters and senior citizens, when compiling your list.
Jim Diers, a veteran activist who has held workshops throughout Seattle to help residents improve their neighborhoods, says, “The assets a neighborhood can build on range from natural features to a school playground, great stores, networks, organizations, artists, and the whole range of human and financial resources, energy, creativity, and ideas. Whether it’s a restaurant with especially delicious food, a gigantic cedar tree, or a longtime resident, a neighborhood treasure is something that makes us glad we live where we do.”
Jay Walljasper is co-editor of On the Commons, and is the author of All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons (The New Press, 2010). His new book, How to Design Our World for Happiness, is now available online. Walljasper is a Contributing Editor at National Geographic Traveler, a Senior Fellow of the Project for Public Spaces, and a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision. His website is: www.JayWalljasper.com.